Friday, August 21, 2009

Google And Fr. Athanasius Kircher, S.J.

A few years ago Paula Findlen, a professor of Italian history at Stanford University, edited a book with a title calculated to stir unusual interest -- Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Findlen admires people who dream of acquiring universal knowledge and in Kircher, a German Jesuit, she chose a prime specimen.

He lived in the 17th century, when it was a lot easier to appear omniscient. Learning was not yet specialized, book publishing was a young profession and a scholar could still master most recent books and many classics of antiquity.

Kircher, relatively obscure in recent centuries, has lately been attracting so much attention that the 21st century has produced 11 books on his work. As the author of 40 volumes, he fascinates people studying the beginnings of book culture, a fashionable subject now that the future of print is in question.

This season Kircher shows up again, among many others like him, in Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Harvard University Press), by Anthony Grafton, a Princeton historian. Grafton's essays dance nimbly across that gigantic chasm of time separating the Renaissance from Google.

At the moment the tools of scholarship are changing in ways not imagined since Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type half a millennium ago. In 2006 Kevin Kelley of Wired magazine wrote that soon all the world's books will "become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas." Grafton, in The New Yorker and elsewhere, has expressed misgivings about that development. Still, he knows that for cultural historians nostalgia is a dangerous temptation.

He loves everything about books and libraries, including the smells they exude, but he also knows that future generations will be unlikely to develop similar feelings for the Bibliotheque nationale in Paris or the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. Still, he follows the progress of the computer era with enthusiasm, deep curiosity and a passion for detail.

Grafton acknowledges that Google Books now make it possible to study many aspects of French thought and literature as deeply in New York as in Paris, "and a lot more efficiently." A Cambridge University Press editor claims that these days "95% of all scholarly enquiries start at Google." That makes sense, Grafton says: "Google, the nerdiest of corporations, has roots in the world of books." The Internet has become such a zealous cataloguer that we can now envision a time when no one will be delighted by the serendipitous discovery of a long-sought volume; it will already be online. (In exploring Grafton's own world I've learned that an essential site for Latin e-books, from Cicero to Thomas More, carries the donnishly comic name of White Trash Scriptorium.)

Link (here) to the full article

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